You know, I don’t mean to neglect this blog. Contrary to popular perception, college professors actually do more work during the summer than during the academic year: planning courses, researching, writing, etc. Multiple projects have reared their heads and, since they have deadlines and since blog entries do not … In any case, I have a few entries in the on-deck circle. Stay tuned..
Though my contributions are exceedingly small, I’m nevertheless quite pleased to be associated in even the smallest way with The Big Lebowski: I was recently interviewed by Duane Dudek, film critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, about the film’s status as a cult object. Duane, a very nice chap, talked with me for half an hour or so about the nature of cult films, and the specific appeal of The Big Lebowski.
Though only a sliver of this comment remains in the article, my own take on the cult appeal of TBL is that it is a surprisingly rich and dense text that rewards multiple viewings. Not only is the plot actually quite complex (it took me a couple viewings to sort it out, and at least one more to realize that it — like other Coen Brothers’ films The Man Who Wasn’t There, Blood Simple, and Miller’s Crossing — was a riff on film noir. Beyond the plotting, though, the film’s characters, situations, and gags are plentiful, multi-layered, visually inventive, and bizarre. As I am fond of saying, The Big Lebowski just keeps giving and giving and giving. Every time I see it, I find something I had missed, or something that may be read in another way. It is no wonder to me that hordes of beer-guzzling bowling enthusiasts recently descended on Milwaukee to celebrate this film. Few films merits such treatment. I suppose it’s up to me to start up the Big Trouble in Little China Fest… (I actually have an old essay about BTILC on that venerable site.)
For some reason, another journal also saw fit to interview me recently. Leo Collis, a writer for Film International (full disclosure: I am a frequent contributor of book, DVD, and film reviews to this publication), recently chatted with me via Skype about my book Tashlinesque. Leo’s interview appears in a recent update to Film International‘s wide-ranging website. Forthcoming on that same site is his full review of my book, which I look forward to reading. (Also forthcoming in Film International is a review that I wrote of the semi-recent Blu-Ray release of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, in case you’re curious.)
Finally, one of the chief reasons for my absence from this blog was that I was researching and writing a paper, which I recently delivered at the annual conference of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image. Studying the workings of the brain and mind as a framework for understanding our grasp of movies — this is the mission of this organization, in a nutshell, and it is one that interests me greatly. I am no scientist or psychologist, but I do have a strong interest in cognition, evolutionary psychology, and the mental processes that underpin vision and narration. I’d only once dabbled in this area before, for the Visible Evidence conference in Istanbul in 2010; that was for a paper about using certain principles of cognitive science to explore the use of animation in documentary film. The paper I delivered about a week ago represented for me a more thorough exploration of the overlapping topics of cognition and cinema.
My recent paper — which I hope to revise for publication — used a scene in Jean-Pierre Melville’s film Un Flic (French slang meaning “a cop”) as a way to ask questions about the specific visual-cognitive processes that we activate when we detect “fakery” in cinematic special effects. For multiple shots in the scene I analyzed, Melville uses, for budgetary reasons, a toy train set and a toy helicopter to stand in for a full-size train and a full-size helicopter. The fact that the vehicles are models is exceedingly obvious to any viewer; recognition takes less than half a second, I’d estimate.
Digging around in psychology literature about visual cognition was a new and rewarding kind of research for me; I’ve never drawn on scientific papers for any of my own writing. Combining it with my own knowledge of film history and cinematic narration was quite satisfying.
Ultimately, I argue in that paper that, in a typical viewing situation, the visual-cognitive information gleaned by our foveal system “agrees” with that gleaned by our parafoveal system; if there are disparities between these two information streams, we are cued to look for further disparities. Such disparities include but are not limited to the volume of light reflected by a small object (the toy train) when we are “told” that we are looking at a large object (a real train); the sudden movements that give away the lightweight nature of the toy helicopter, when we know that real helicopters move more subtly; the uniform leaning of a toy tree when we know that a real tree moves gently in a wind, not to mention the chaotic flutterings of its leaves. When the parafoveal and foveal systems do not agree, again, we are “primed” to find other flaws in the visual information. In this case, I argue, the principal flaw we find has to do with the film’s story information: we are effectively lied to. Not about the real world, but about the nature of the story world, or diegesis. Once we pick up on that “lie,” we use it to assess the trustworthiness of the storyteller/director. And, as I found, the general critical and popular discourse on Un Flic unfailingly mentions the obvious miniatures, with many commentators going so far as to say that those toy vehicles “take them out” of the film entirely, or, more severely, make them question or even dislike Melville as a filmmaker. (I used the user reviews of Un Flic on IMDB as a case study.)
I found the linkage between visual perception, narrative perception, and critical evaluation to be fascinating, and, as I say, I do hope to expand this paper and publish it. I got some excellent feedback at the conference, and need to incorporate those ideas into it. Your ideas are welcome, too.
Coming up soon(ish): a long essay about Neil Young’s misunderstood album Trans. That’s one of the things I like about blogging. I now have a forum to write about not only cognitive film studies, but oddball albums by rock titans. Quite exciting, this computer magic.
Frank Tashlin was an unusual filmmaker for a number of reasons, one of which has to do with his relationship with Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies producer Leon Schlesinger.
For one thing, Tashlin often contended that, once his comic strip “Van Boring” started to bring in a bit of revenue, Schlesinger — the supervisor of Warner Bros.’s fabled “Termite Terrace” animation studio, where Tashlin worked — felt that he was entitled to some of the profits. Quoth Tashlin, “He wanted a cut of it, and I said go to hell. So he fired me.”
(Incidentally, “Van Boring” – whose eponymous main character was based on Tashlin’s former boss, Amedée Van Beuren, the head of the nearly-forgotten Van Beuren animation studio – has its own Facebook page! Check it out – whoever holds that account posts at least one vintage “Van Boring” strip per day, and many are quite clever.)
I’ve never been able to corroborate that story about Schlesinger wanting a cut of Tashlin’s (assuredly meager) “Van Boring” profits, but it doesn’t seem all that unlikely to me, given Schlesinger’s reputation as a rather stern and shrewd businessman. (He was also regarded as a fairly permissive, hands-off producer, for which many Warner Bros. animators admired him.) In any case, even if Schlesinger fired Tashlin at that time (around 1933), he would rehire him two more times. Tashlin bounced around from studio to studio quite a bit, as I detail in Tashlinesque.
The other element of Tashlin’s unusual relationship with Schlesinger is that, evidently, the producer granted the animator a unique privilege: the permission to use a nom de animation for several of his cartoons. That nom was “Tish Tash,” a pseudonym Tashlin started using as early as his teenage years, when he illustrated his school’s yearbook and other publications. A handful of Tashlin’s Warner Bros. cartoons – and a large number of the print cartoons that he published in various humor magazines – were signed by Tish Tash.
I have a few bits of Tashlin-related news to report. The first of these is that The Austin Chronicle has published a more-or-less favorable review of my book Tashlinesque, which you can read right here.
A couple of months ago, I did a phone interview with the good people at The Mondo Film Podcast, a very excellent site created and run by true cinephiles. Justin Bozung, one of those cinephiles, was aware of Tashlinesque and wanted to talk to me for an epic podcast about the genius of Jerry Lewis, one of my favorite topics. You can listen to and/or download that podcast here; it runs two hours (!), and my comments occur during its last 30 minutes. Folks, this is only Part One of the Jerry Lewis show. Yes, his genius truly is so enormous that two hours of talking doesn’t even come close to addressing it. I am not speaking sarcastically, here. Here’s a second link from which you can listen to the ‘cast.
Finally, and most incredibly:
For me, one of the most rewarding and exciting things about writing books is that, occasionally, admirers of my work will contact me to share with me their enthusiasm. Not long after my book This Is Spinal Tap was published, I received a very nice email from a university librarian who was compiling a list of resources for students and scholars who wished to do research on mock-documentaries. He didn’t have to alert me to my book’s inclusion on his list, but he did, and very kindly included some words of praise, as well.
Just today, I received an email from Stephen Kroninger, who runs an eponymous animation/illustration blog at Drawger. Not only does Stephen possess an original Frank Tashlin oil painting (see below), he has compiled a remarkably useful and comprehensive post consisting of all manner of Tashlin-related materials, both print and audiovisual.
In addition to containing video of, to name a few, both Jerry Lewis’s amazing dance scene from Cinderfella and Tashlin’s hard-to-see and extremely influential cartoon The Fox and the Grapes (which I have also posted below), Stephen does a great service to historians and students of American illustration by posting, in its page-by-page entirety, Tashlin’s extremely hard-to-find, out-of-print cartooning manual How to Create Cartoons. This book, in which Tashlin espouses his “SCOTArt” system of drawing (which relies on the mastery of four basic shapes: Square, Circle, Oval, Triangle), is quite rare. The only copy I’ve ever seen resides in the Frank Tashlin Archive in the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. Years ago, with permission, I made a photocopy of the book, but the copy that Stephen has uploaded is way better, as it’s in color — well, its cover is in color — and the scans are of very high quality. How to Create Cartoons offers insight not only into Tashlin’s method of illustration, but into the general stylistic and economic tendencies of the market for illustration in the middle of the twentieth century. Again, this is a valuable document.
My own talent for illustration lies mostly in the realm of the notebook doodle, but perhaps it’s now finally time for me to give this SCOTArt business a go. Reader submissions are also welcome!
A few further favorable reviews of my book Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin, have been published recently.
The first of these is more of a favorable comment than a review proper, but, since it comes from John Landis on the excellent website Trailers from Hell, I cannot help but refer to it here. I’ve always felt that Landis’s intense cinephilia makes him one of The Good Guys. And now that he calls my book “essential,” I like him even more!
Much more detailed and favorable is the review of Tashlinesque by Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Professor Dixon has some very kind words to say — including “comprehensive” and, my favorite, “a towering achievement” (!!) — on his blog Frame by Frame, which, by the way, is extremely eclectic and educational.
When true lovers of cinema like my book, I am happy.
If you know of any other reviews, please let me know!
I received some sad news this morning: the great actor and kind man William Finley, best known for his cinematic collaborations with Brian De Palma, died two days ago here in New York City. He was not quite 70 years old, and he died suddenly and unexpectedly.
A longtime friend of Brian De Palma’s (the two met as students at Sarah Lawrence), Finley is surely best known for his cinematic collaborations with that fascinating director. The most gloriously demented and remarkable of those collaborations is surely his starring role as Winslow Leach in The Phantom of the Paradise, the 1974 cult classic horror/musical/comedy/masterpiece — one of my very very favorite films. In addition to his roles in Phantom, Finley appeared in several other De Palma films: the early (1962) short film Woton’s Wake; two early features which I consider as a sort of pair, Murder à la Mod (1968) and The Wedding Party (1969); the experimental “filmed theater” piece Dionysus in ’69 (1970), about which more below; the magnificently assured and highly creepy Sisters (1973); and smaller parts in The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (voice only, 1980), and The Black Dahlia (2006). The Black Dahlia would prove to be his last film role.
I’ve seen only a few online tributes to William Finley. (After I received the news from a friend who knew Finley well, I searched for obituaries. The only ones I found were in French, another piece of evidence that the citizens of that country understand American films and artists better than do Americans.) As the day went on, a few English–language obituaries were posted, though most of these are somewhat cursory. The kindest and most sincere tribute was posted on the blog of Edgar Wright, director of the magnificent works Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World; in fact, the internets seems to be giving Wright the credit for breaking the story of Finley’s death. You can read his tribute here.
The simplest, starkest online tribute was posted by the webmaster of The Swan Archives, a site dedicated to the glory that is The Phantom of the Paradise. Every page of that great website (so good that I’ve assigned parts of it in a class) has been replaced by the image below. After the current period of mourning, I encourage you to check back in with The Swan Archives: it’s one of the best single-film websites on the internet.
It always strikes me as peculiar when William Finley’s name plays across the screen so early in the opening titles of Phantom of the Paradise, as if he were a huge, well-known star. In a perfect world, he would have been, but the fact that he was not better-known was, it seems to me, part of the joke: his gawkiness, thick glasses, and oddball intensity certainly were not the stuff of conventional leading men. Probably very few people came to the theater for the express purpose of seeing William Finley perform — at that point, he was best known for his performances in various works of avant-garde New York City theater — but, really, the joke was on them if and when they wondered who he was: Finley’s performance in the film is marvelous, and worth the price of admission. Would that there had been more opportunities for moviegoers to attend a film on William Finley’s name recognition alone.
Another of William Finley’s finest performances is in the aforementioned Dionysus in ’69, De Palma’s filmed version of Richard Schechner’s play of the same name, which was itself inspired by Euripides’s play The Bacchae. The film version is a very unusual movie: a filmed performance of Dionysus in ’69, as staged by The Performance Group, a New York theater collective with strong experimental leanings. The film is much more than “filmed theater”: it uses multiple cameras, split-screens (the use of which would become a De Palma trademark), and extremely unusual staging and composition. This film, which until recently was quite hard to find, is now legally available to watch on the website of the Hemispheric Institute. I suggest you give it a look – it’s pretty damned fascinating. It’s one of the strongest extant links between Finley’s and De Palma’s avant-garde roots.
The reason I can refer to William Finley as a kind man is that I met him once. With the crucial assistance of the webmaster of The Swan Archives, Bill agreed to come out to Hofstra University to visit my students, who were taking a class with me on the films of Brian De Palma. By that point in the semester, my students had seen Dionysus in ’69 and The Phantom of the Paradise; to my great surprise, their reaction to both films was highly positive. Those students did treat Bill Finley like the massive star he should have become: they were flattered by his visit and enthusiastic in their interactions with him. He really enjoyed their questions and answered them quite graciously and humorously. He was a very nice man, and I am honored to have gotten the chance to meet him.
Though I happen to know that he signed off on his appearance on the cover of the upcoming book Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible by my friend Chris Dumas, it’s a shame that he did not live to see that book published. I think he would have gotten a kick out of it.